Tuesday, July 17, 2018

A Texaco Star

In a post not long ago I extolled the beauties of old pickup trucks. In particular I love those old trucks of the 1950s with their curves and chrome. A vintage car dealership downtown has had this beauty on display for several weeks, giving me time to study it in watercolor.

This model is a mid-1950s Ford truck that has been lovingly restored. The doors sport a Texaco logo ("the big, bright Texaco star!") and the fenders advise that 24 hour service is available. The red and white paint shines and the white walls are spotless.

Situated along a busy downtown street, the dealership always turns heads with such displays and makes me stop and sketch. For this image I drew the truck in a fair amount of detail using an HB pencil, trying very hard to make accurate measurements. Once I had a good image I used a flexible nib pen to ink the major outline and intersections, taking care with correct proportions and sizes. Time didn't permit completing the painting on site, so I made several reference snapshots and finished the colors in the studio.
Old Pickup Trucks

Friday, July 13, 2018

More Animal Drawing

A lot of people enjoy drawing and painting animals. I know a number of artists whose oeuvre is animal portraiture, for example. For any realist, knowing how to make images of animals is a critical skill. A few weeks back I posted a few animal drawings, done with graphite and digitally, so here are a few more.

Chickens always look gimlet-eyed and sharp--they probably have to be. I grew up in the country where we always had a flock and spent countless hours tending them, gathering eggs, cleaning coops and all the rest. As a consequence of my upbringing, these aren't my favorite birds but the landscape of chickens' heads, combs and bills is always challenging. As with most of my animal sketches these days, this was done using Sketchbook and a Wacom tablet.

This fellow is a pit bulldog whose name, according to the caption of his photo is Tank. He definitely looks like his name and reminds me of a bulldog with the same name who lived with some friends. My friends' dog was an enormous, loose-lipped English bulldog who slobbered incessantly but was gentle as a lamb. In contrast, the guy in this drawing looked clearly dangerous to me, especially with those yellow eyes. The challenge with this drawing was to evoke that sense of menace, so I left the main portion of the drawing in grayscale and emphasized those red-rimmed eyes.

This is another dog, more of a hound really, and the drawing medium is silverpoint. The image is a copy of a well-known drawing in silverpoint by Albrecht Durer--probably his own dog. Silverpoint, unlike digital or graphite images, is quite unforgiving. You can't readily erase silverpoint marks, so each stroke must be considered carefully before being laid down. Silverpoint promotes extended consideration and observation before doing anything. For me, then, silverpoint promotes careful and accurate observation.

One final image for today is another bird, this time a pelican drawn from memory using graphite. Some years ago friends and I had an online discussion about drawing animals and came up with a challenge to produce a believable image of these fisher birds. This one was my favorite quick sketch of a successful dive. The bird has managed to scoop up a full pouch of food and sits in the surf, contented. This particular sketch was done with a 4B pencil on a piece of printer paper.
Being a realist, my take on drawing animals--or indeed anything--is the same as the famous quote from Michelangelo Buonarotti--"Draw and don't waste time."


Tuesday, July 10, 2018

June on Druid Hill Creek

June was one of the hottest and wettest in central Iowa. We had days and days of exceptionally high afternoon temperatures and considerably more rain than usual. Des Moines historically has its highest rainfall in June, but this year exceeded the usual by inches. Naturally, with that much encouragement the undergrowth along Druid Hill Creek grew lush
and thick. At first rapid growth was welcome, green and soft but after a while the entire creek was obliterated--wild grape, honeysuckle, tree saplings and of course grasses of all kinds grew higher and higher and more and more dense. The woods changed to jungle in only a few days.

It was as if the woods would even envelop the studio. But I hadn't thought about the creek itself, at all.
Druid Hill Creek is a quiet little stream, maybe three feet or four across its breadth and perhaps four or five inches deep, most of the time. It runs, slowly or rapidly, all year, even in the driest of months, fd by springs uphill from here. But when rain falls fast and hard, the creek can actually become a raging, monstrous beast more than five feet deep. When that happens,
the current gets rapid and hard, charging like an unchecked cattle stampede down the narrow creekbed toward Gray's Lake and the Raccoon River. One night in June that sort of rain came, dropping a huge amount, and the creek predictably rose and rose and charged down, ripping out much of the jungle-like growth and re-exposing hidden watercourse. In accompaniment, the raging water scoured the banks of debris left earlier, dropping a different set in its place. A dead tree that had fallen somewhere upstream was left high on the bank, trunk and branches, alongside a smaller specimen just across from the studio. The tall grass on the opposite bank is completely flattened by the rushing water, even saplings. And there is sand and leaf debris everywhere along the flooding creek's margins. You can see the water again, but now it's mostly the color of coffee, an effect of the dark sediment in the stream bed and the dark overhanging branches and leaves.

For these June sketches I sat outside and drew, trying to capture the look and feel of the woods and battling mosquitoes and other pests. The sketches above were done in my  dedicated sketchbook of the creek, all using the same technique--a pencil layout, watercolor painting and ink additions as the finishing touches. These are probably the last creek sketches for now. In the fall, likely October, I'll open another sketchbook to make images of the woods and they change.

For anyone interested in previous posts of The Creek:
Druid Hill Creek Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Friday, July 06, 2018

Political Cartoonist Gone

In a post a few days ago about editorial cartooning, I mentioned in passing that commentary via editorial cartoons was not only alive but quite well indeed, even if many newspapers no longer have an in-house editorial cartoonist. For many that may simply be the substantially altered economics of print periodicals. Many do run syndicated cartoons. And if you don't read printed news, as many do not these days, online cartoons are widely available and some end up as memes on social media. So happily, pointed comments via satire or humor with or without caricature remain embedded in our culture, no matter what the medium. And although text is arguably more important, visual messages sink deeper.

We saw again the importance of editorial cartooning a while back--certainly events made it clear how important a newspaper editor and publisher believe it to be. During a period of changing editorial stance of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from liberal to right-wing, the paper's editor and publisher came into conflict with long-time cartoonist Rob Rogers, who believed himself independent in the same way as editorial columnists are. After months of conflict with the the newspaper fired Mr. Rogers a few weeks ago. During the preceding several months the editor (and the publisher too) rejected no fewer than 19 cartoons by Rob Rogers, all of which had an anti-Trump flavor. The paper has become favorably disposed to Mr. Trump in recent years, praising the president in editorials and once claiming that charges of racism were "the new McCarthyism."

Clearly Mr. Rogers' adamant anti-Trump stance struck a nerve and the newspaper was equally adamant. Mr. Rogers' viewpoint over his years with the paper had been consistently liberal even as the editorial slant turned rightward. Further, he believed his voice was appropriately independent. The New York Times reported on the situation and quoted Mr. Rogers as saying “They clearly had a mission to change the editorial page and I wasn’t getting in line..." In that article, the editor says the problem was that the cartoons weren't funny, and according to him instead sounded only enraged. Furthermore the editor asserted that the cartoons were becoming monotonous. No intent to influence point of view, in other words. Perhaps, or perhaps not. Above is a typical recent cartoon posted on Mr. Rogers' website (not printed in the Post-Gazette).

While it's easy to be unhappy about Mr. Rogers' dismissal from the newspaper, it's also true that his voice will at least continue to be available in syndication and online and from that position he will be truly independent. Will he be as widely heard?

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

Independence Day in America

"Sam Has High Hopes (after Flagg)"
In this country we celebrate Independence Day every July 4, commemorating the 1776 vote by the Continental Congress to separate from Great Britain and become a free and independent nation. The vote actually took place a couple of days earlier, but that really doesn't matter. What matters is that the vote establishing this nation was founded on the principle that all people are created equal. That undergirding principle has been difficult to uphold, always, and slavery certainly made mockery of the statement for decades afterward. Our heterogeneous society abolished that abomination with enormous bloodshed, but has worked to remove the remaining stains with mixed success. Even so, the country continues to try, despite deep-rooted prejudices and smoldering resentments, despite beliefs  ingrained yet unrecognized, despite hate, and despite failing leadership. The country persists.

We believe in human equality. Perhaps we will find a way to honor that belief in reality and in our behaviors. Perhaps, one day. Uncle Sam can hope.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Cities Full of People

"Brewpub," oil on panel, 24x16, 2018
Cities are where most people live now, at least in this country. Accordingly, a few years ago it occurred to me that because of that simple demographic, it might be more interesting to devote time to discovering and painting the urban environment--the cityscape. In other posts I've mentioned that there were several aspects of cities that attracted me. Besides the simple fact of population, the abundant simple geometric shapes of the city can be intriguing as they overlap and overshadow one another. You can look at almost any city, big or small, and discover infinite variations on those shapes--cubes, cylinders, etc.--that provide opportunities to also study color, value shifts, and so on. One of the fun aspects of my newest cityscape, Brewpub (above), was working out the shapes of various objects as they overlap in space. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of doing these city scenes, though, is working out the figurative elements. Generally I work these out in advance, at least mentally, before launching into the work. Sometimes though I just wing it, which is what I did with Brewpub. As the work progressed, generally top left to lower right and top to bottom, the figures simply took shape, and in the end the group and gestures were completely spontaneous.

Edward Hopper, "Early Sunday Morning," 1930
Unless you're painting a city in the dead of night, there are always people around, and they almost always figure in my work. That makes for another wide spectrum of opportunities.

Although my work has been compared to Edward Hopper, the are a lot of differences. Mr. Hopper was a painter well known for his city settings, for example. The streets in his paintings generally empty, though. Mr. Hopper's work (by his own estimation) deals with loneliness, so it's no surprise that when they are present people are often alone or in couples. You seldom see a group. But Hopper's people are nearly always indoors and we see them as if we're peeping in. His streets are desolate. An excellent example is Early Sunday Morning, shows a city building raked with early morning light. No people are in sight. But cities today aren't so empty. Cities are teeming with people, especially now that moving into city centers is the trend. There are people on the sidewalks. There is nightlife, and congregations of people.

My concept of cityscape painting involves combining what Hopper did with facades, shapes, light, color and so on with the passing human parade. In my view of the city people are everywhere--walking, sitting, arguing, loving, simply being human. It's hard to exclude figures from a cityscape without making the painting seem like an architectural rendering. That is, it's important to me to imply narrative and emotion. I want my figures to be expressive. In Brewpub there is a couple who are having a bad moment of some kind--she is walking away head high and arms crossed, and he is watching her go with arms spread wide as if in confusion. What is happening between them? Your guess is as good as mine, but whatever is happening, perhaps it reverberates for viewers of the painting. 
City Streets
Cityscapes Redux

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Digits and Images and Ads, Oh My

"Miquela," by Brud (detail) source: CNN
This week on CNN, a piece in their tech section showed us a new phenomenon: a social media star (Instagram) who has become a force despite not being human (although passing online). The Instragram star is Miquela, who is recognizable by her freckles and brown bangs, among other attributes. Since 2016 "she" has been posting about fashion and attending shows, hanging out with celebrities and so has become what is known as an "influencer."

Miquela has something on the order of a million followers on social media. In April, she admitted that she wasn't human. Nobody seems to care. Despite the truth that Miquela is a computer generated image placed on Instragram as an avatar (the words posted seem human) and used to promote various products in a more subtle way than the usual bludgeon-like adverts on the 'net.

To my surprise, there are other CGIs out there. One called Shudu, mentioned on CNN, is billed as the first digital supermodel . Shudu is black and beautiful. She's a project of a photographer named Cameron James-Wilson who personally constructs each image. Although he has been up front from the beginning about the digital nature of Shudu, she is acclaimed as one of the beauties of Instragram, seemingly alongside human women.

Although we call these images "computer-generated" it's important to remember that these are human-generated using a digital tool. That is, these aren't made by an artificial (computer) intelligence, but by a human one. The tool simply provides a different set of tools, difficulties and image qualities than more traditional media. Certainly nobody can say that the humans who make these images are not artists. Instead we need to recognize the consummate artistry involved in production of a character like Shudu. Have a look at the short video below, narrated by Shudu's creator.
Given that Miquela is already an amazing Instagram success as well as an apparently successful (and probably money-making) influencer, and that Shudu is already a supermodel, it doesn't take much imgination to see how ubiquitous computer characters will be in advertising, especially online. Like magazines of the twentieth century nurtured traditional illustrators and their work, Internet sites of the twenty-first are beginning to develop their own band of fantastically gifted digital artists. It's time to pay a lot of attention.